My acquaintance with TS Eliot’s poetry was perfunctory. A student of Economics in college and with little interest in poetry at the time, I ignored his works as much as was possible. It wasn’t possible to avoid it entirely because English was one of the papers and a part of the poem was prescribed.
I didn’t understand the poem and though the striking imagery of April as the cruellest month stayed in mind, I felt no incentive to explore it further till the lockdown forced me to go back to it. Intrigued, I felt compelled to explore the context and learnt that Eliot wrote it in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu and the first world war between 1918 and 1920. The poem was first published in 1922.
There are several lines in the poem that resonate today, one hundred years later. The title The Waste land never made more sense than in these times of another pandemic. I personally have read the following lines, among several others, over and over again.
• He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
• Unreal City
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
I read commentaries to understand what Eliot could have meant by describing April, the beginning of spring in most of the western hemisphere, as the cruellest month; and realised for the first time that he was referring to hope and disappointment. Hope could hurt and the advent of spring could hurt by not getting realised.
T. S. Eliot and his wife, Vivien caught the virus in December 1918. Eliot’s attack was comparatively mild, though in a letter to his mother on December 8, 1918, he writes that it left him “so very weak afterwards.” Vivien then caught it and was much sicker; the virus, Eliot wrote, “affected her nerves so that she can hardly sleep at all.”
In Ireland yet another poet W. B. Yeats had watched helplessly as his pregnant wife, George, struggled to fight off the virus at their rented house in Dublin. Outside, the pandemic was sweeping through the city. The countryside where Yeats thought of taking her offered no escape, already overrun with funerals and bodies. Before it was over, the flu would infect between 600,000 and 800,000 people in Ireland.
Globally, the pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people, and the United States suffered more deaths in the pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—combined. In Britain, while more died in World War I, a third of the population, or ten million people, caught the flu, and at least 228,000 died.
The pandemic changed public life—closing schools, churches, and businesses and filling the hospitals as the coronavirus is doing now.
An interesting nugget I picked up is that like many other people during the pandemic, Virginia Woolf initially treated the outbreak as a side note to the larger story of the war. In July 1918, as the first wave struck, she recorded in her diary that influenza “rages all over the place” and indeed “has come next door” to infect their neighbour. But she did not seem unduly alarmed. The next week, she reported “a funeral next door; dead of influenza”.